One year ago, Husk Greenville, the most anticipated Upstate restaurant in recent history, was days away from opening.
James Beard Foundation award-winning chef Sean Brock, then executive chef of all of the Husk locations, was in town working with his new team at the nearly finished location at 722 S. Main St. Between 80 and 90 staff members gathered for orientation, where David Howard, president of the Neighborhood Dining Group, which owns Husk, remembers addressing a main assumption about the restaurant prior to the Nov. 28, 2017, opening:
“If you think that we’re just going to go open a Husk and it would be packed from day one, it would be a mistake, because I never, at no time, did I believe that because we’d been successful in other cities and we had a terrific brand that we’re just going to show up and the restaurant’s full and we’re going to live happily ever after,” Howard says.
In other words, success in this industry is not a guarantee, even for a restaurant from the team of a seasoned restaurateur like Howard and celebrity chef like Brock.
“It takes time for the restaurant to settle in and provide efficient service, timing of food,” Howard says. “A restaurant has to have rhythm, and that’s something that’s the most attractive about old-school restaurants because they’re just in a rhythm, and it’s easy. When you open a new restaurant, that’s not the case.”
And his cautionary words would prove true over the last year as the celebrated brand founded in Charleston on Brock’s core values of honoring locally sourced, historic Southern cuisine initially struggled to gain traction in its new market.
“I would be dishonest to say it’s been an easy first year,” Howard says. “We’re not hitting our projected anticipated sales goal, but we’re also ambitious and very optimistic.”
Several months later, Brock’s announcement on July 30 that he was stepping down from the Neighborhood Dining Group caused fans and leadership alike to wonder what impact his absence would have. The answer: not as much as they anticipated because NDG restaurants, which also includes McCrady’s, McCrady’s Tavern, and Minero, boasted a 600-strong staff dedicated to the foundation Brock had laid, Howard says.
Howard says that despite the perceived challenges, they are committed to those core values Brock established and to staying the course in Greenville, noting that Husk’s second location – Nashville, Tennessee – also had a slower start. But after listening to the diners there and being patient, they made adjustments as necessary without compromising. Now the restaurant is thriving.
They’ve made similar changes in Greenville – offering a “Local’s Menu” with four courses for $39 and adding a private dining room upstairs. Howard says 30 percent of diners are ordering from that new prix fixe option when it is offered, and the dining room is getting regular use.
A main difference between the Greenville market and Husk’s other homes in Charleston; Nashville; and Savannah, Georgia, is that the ratio of local versus tourist diners is much higher.
“That’s not a problem, it’s just a difference for us,” Howard says.
And while tourists will seek out restaurants like Husk, or seek to dine where a prominent chef has cooked, locals may not be familiar with the brand.
“We’ve been blessed with a lot of success with Husk, and Husk has a fairly well-known name,” Howard says. “But it would be easy to assume that everybody knows what Husk is, and that would be crazy to think that people do. I would say that 99.9 percent of the population of a 20-mile radius of this location has never heard of Husk and has no idea what it is.”
Now that the restaurant has hit its stride, with former chef de cuisine Jon Buck assuming the exec role when Brock announced his departure, the leadership has some specific goals in mind for year two.
“Our focus for the next year has to be improve our communication as to what [Husk] is,” Howard says. “We have to let people know we’re here, what’s important to us, and the type of food and experience they [can] expect. We need to let people know we’re here, and we’re here to stay, and we want to be part of their rotation when they think of dining out.”
A key is dispelling the misperception that Husk should be reserved for special occasions or that it’s more highbrow than it is, he says.
“We’re serving fried chicken and hamburgers in a casual place,” Howard says. “Servers are casually dressed and there’s the open kitchen and friendly faces.”
For Buck and the kitchen staff, it means learning from the last year, and keeping the menu approachable for the newcomers and adventurous for the seasoned regulars and experience-seekers.
“Now we’re at that pivotal moment where you’re looking back at a year of work, and a year of relationships with the staff and the cooks, really just trying to settle in to that family philosophy of ‘what is your story now,’ ” Buck says. “There’s a fine line between trying to be super approachable and then trying to be a little bit outside the box. That’s why you’ll see a lot of dishes written on the menu for the adventurous person and a lot written for the safe person. And as we develop our relationship in the community and cultivate trust in our guests, then we’re going to have more of an opportunity to explore the outer fringe, scientific, creativity aspects of the culinary world.”
Buck recognizes the challenge that presents to a creative kitchen staff wanting to push the boundaries and experiment but also provide a hospitable environment for a variety of diners.
“There’s always that line between food being the reality of sustenance,” Buck says. “We all must eat calories to maintain life. Food to me has always been about memories, and about sustenance with love and care, and I think the longer we continue to say the message here in Greenville, the more captive our audience will become. That’s been kind of my mantra from day one. Just stay the course, be honest with what we do, do what we do, and try to do it as well as we can.”